Benjamin Rush


Portrait of Benjamin RushBenjamin Rush was sometimes overlooked as a founding father of the US. He worked as a physician, writer, educator, and humanitarian. He is perhaps best known as one of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Rush departed from the long-standing humor theory of disease advanced by Hippocrates and Galen. Instead he adopted a two-part theory of disease arising from malfunctioning of the nervous system. He, along with his mentor William Cullen, theorized that physical diseases arose from either too much nervous energy or too little. Rush argued that there were two kinds of diseases, one that weakened the pulse and the other that excited it.

Rush’s remedies for a weakened pulse included a heavy diet, alcohol, and stimulants. For a strong or overly excited pulse he moderate diet, sweating, and purging. He recommended for both the procedure of bloodletting.

In his capacity as senior physician at a psychiatric hospital in Pennsylvania, Rush instituted reforms for the care of the mentally ill. He replaced reliance on harsh, abusive procedures with careful clinical observation and gentle treatment. This moral treatment was consonant with that developed at about the same time by Philippe Pinel (1745-1826) in France, Vincenzo Chiarugi (1759-1820) in Italy, and Wiliam Tuke (1732-1822) in England.

Benjamin Rush was born in December of 1745 in Byberry, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. His father died when he was six and his mother placed him in the care of his maternal uncle Dr. Finley, a Presbyterian minister and director of a boarding school. Finley became his longtime teacher and advisor.

In 1759 Rush attained a Bachelor of Arts degree from the College of Philadelphia. He apprenticed to a medical doctor for four years and then studied and worked in Edinburgh Scotland where he obtained a medical degree. His mentor in Scotland was William Cullen.

In 1769, Rush opened a private practice in Philadelphia.

Rush was among a group of Americans who lobbied against the British and advocated for US independence. In June of 1776 he was elected to represent Philadelphia at the Continental Congress. It was in that capacity that he became one of the 56 people to sign the Declaration of Independence.

In 1777 Rush was appointed surgeon-general of the middle department of the Continental Army in the revolutionary war. He was subsequently dismissed because he complained about the methods of his superior and long time rival, Dr. William Shippen.

After the war, Rush returned to his medical practice and to his political activities. From 1791 until his death in 1813 Rush was a professor of medical theory and clinical practice at the University of Pennsylvania.

Rush was heavily involved in political and social causes. He campaigned against slavery and capital punishment. He also advocated for scientific education for the masses, including women, and promoted public medical clinics to treat the poor. He also founded the Philadelphia Dispensary for the relief of the poor and Dickinson College.

Writings of Benjamin Rush, arranged chronologically

Rush, Benjamin (1798). Of the mode of education proper in a republic. (For excerpts, see:

Rush, Benjamin (1801). Six introductory lectures to courses of lectures upon the institute and practice of medicine. Philadelphia: John Conrad and Co.

Rush, Benjamin (1818). Medical inquiries and observations. 5th edition, 2 vols. Philadelphia.

Rush, Benjamin (1827). Dr. Rush’s eulogium upon Dr. [William] Cullen. Philadelphia.

Rush, Benjamin (1947) The Selected Writings of Benjamin Rush. Edited by Dagobert D. Runes. New York: Philosophical Library.

Rush, Benjamin (1948). The autobiography of Benjamin Rush: His “travels through life” together with his commonplace book for 1789-1813. George W. Corner (ed.). American Philosophical Society, vol 25. Philadelphia.

Rush, Benjamin (1988). Essays, literary, moral and philosophical. ed. Michael Meranze (Ed.) Schenectady, NY: Union College Press.

Rush, Benjamin (1996). A bibliographic guide. Compiled by C. G. Fox, G. L. Miller and J. C. Miller. Westport Connecticut.

Writings about Benjamin Rush, arranged alphabetically

Brodsky, Alyn, (2004). Benjamin Rush: Patriot and physician. NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Butterfield, Lyman H. ed. (1951) Letters of Benjamin Rush. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (2 vols)

Corner, George W., ed. (1948) The autobiography of Benjamin Rush Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

D’Elia, Donald (1970). Benjamin Rush, David Hartley, and the revolutionary uses of psychology. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 114, 109-118.

D'Elia, Donald J. (1974) Benjamin Rush: Philosopher of the American revolution. Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society, New Series, Vol. 64, Part 5.

Fox, C. G. Miller, G. L. & Miller J. C. (1996). Benjamin Rush, a bibliographic guide. Westport Connecticut.

Good, Harry G. (1918). Benjamin Rush and his service to American education. Berne, IN.

Goodman, Nathan G. (1934) Benjamin Rush: Physician and citizen, 1746-1813. Philadelphia.

Hawke, David Freeman (1971) Benjamin Rush, revolutionary gadfly. Indianapolis.

Kuritz, Hyman. (1967) Benjamin Rush: His theory of republican education. History of Education Quarterly, VII, 432-451.

Mitchell, S. Weir (1903). Historical notes of Benjamin Rush. Pennsylvania.

Reidman, Sarah & Green, Clarence (1964). Benjamin Rush: Physician, patriot, founding father. NY: Abelard-Schuman, Ltd.

Runes, Dagobert., (Ed.) (1947). The selected writings of Benjamin Rush. NY: Philosophical Library.

Schutz, John & Adair, Douglass (Eds.) (1966). The spur of fame: dialogues of John Adams and Benjamin Rush, 1805-1813. San Marino, CA.

Williams, Wade (2000). Religion, science and rhetoric in revolutionary America: The case of Dr. Benjamin Rush, Rhetoric Society Quarterly, Summer 2000, 55-72.

Websites on Benjamin Rush